Winter 2018 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Quilting Myths Demystified:
Separating Fact from Fiction
Still, as Mary points out (referring to an idea she borrows from quilt historian Laurel Horton), even if The Quilt Code story is more folklore than fact, it does have value…at least on a cultural level. Because
folklore and myths reflect not only who we are as a culture, but also
what we value.
In any discussion of quilting history, there are myths to be found…
and debunked. Even while the truth may often point a different direction, myths have become engrained in the story of quilting because, in some ways, they offer a version of history that we may find more interesting
“Myths serve a significant role in any group’s understanding of its own identity, as they reveal the aspirations, histories, traditions, and values of a nation, community, or people. Myths have a function to play and should not be disregarded simply as ‘untrue.’ The nuggets of truth are important, but perhaps more important are the reasons myths endure. Myths ring true because they continue to give meaning and structure to the narratives we tell about ourselves.”
Women reenactors in Colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Harvey Barrison.
As an example, it is commonly believed that quilting was a familiar task for most women in Colonial America, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Colonial women were responsible for tasks like sewing clothing for their families, knitting, and spinning. But quilts of that time were typically created using imported fabric, something that only a small fraction of households could afford. More affordable, manufactured textiles wouldn't be introduced in America until many decades later.
In his book, American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007, Robert Shaw, explains, “In Colonial days, fabric—especially printed cottons that were relatively easy to cut and sew and therefore best suited to pieced and appliqué quiltmaking—was imported from England, and it was expensive, putting it out of the reach of all but the well-to-do. Fabric was in such short supply that many colonists only had one or two sets of clothing,
and the idea of using precious cloth to make bed coverings was out
of the question.”
The other aspect of this particular myth is that Colonial women—out of economic need—pieced together fabric scraps to make quilts for the purpose of much-needed warm bedding, making quilts a common and utilitarian household item. Research shows, however, that very few women of the time created quilts from scraps or fabric remnants. Most quilts in Early America were wholecloth and made from only one or two pieces of costly imported fabric, and were actually quite rare.
What’s more, according to the paper, “Early Colonial Quilts in a Bedding Context” by Sally Garoutte, is that “a significant number of late 18th-century American quilts are not warm at all, containing as they do only the minimum amount of filling to show off the quilting. The ‘need’ for American women to make handsome quilts does not appear to be either economical or practical.”
Then, from where did the myth arise and why has it persisted? Garoutte contends that it’s simply a matter of historians of the past presenting theories as fact and not documenting their sources. These theories were then accepted as fact and passed down as part of quilting history. “We have mostly been reluctant to challenge these theories directly,” she explains, “because we honor the women who made them, and so now they occupy a solid position in the lore of quilts.”
In many ways, this myth plays into a larger symbolic aspect of American culture and a treasured vision of a country founded by industrious men and women who were sustained through their resourcefulness. And the very idea of the scrap quilt—tediously pieced together from remainders to create something beautiful—is a far more romantic notion than the historically accurate alternative.
As Virginia Gunn surmises in “From Myth to Maturity: The Evolution of Quilt Scholarship,” Uncoverings 1992, “Americans want honest children who will not lie to them. Americans also want to believe that in times of hardship, they can, like their forebears, sustain life and values by creating the best from the scraps allotted to them.”
So, you might be asking yourself, if the mythology tends to be a better version of events than the reality, why attempt to debunk it? And that’s a good question! One could easily argue that the truth has more value than the idealized version, and there’s certainly merit in that. But it’s not so much about discrediting the myth, as it is about separating it from historical fact.
Gunn argues that in any field of study—including quilting—we must be willing to revise past accounts in light of new knowledge, and have “an ability to recognize and appreciate myths, without letting them impede interpretations based on accurate and documented facts.”
History and myth, she continues, both play and important role in cultures, but their contributions are most positive when they are clearly distinguished from each other. And well-documented history can often be just as fascinating as the legend.
Consider the common misconception that quilters of the past only used scraps out of necessity. While it’s true that some quilters used scraps from clothing, many bought fabric specifically for making quilts. Imagine sitting down to create your quilted masterpiece, but using well-loved (code for “worn-out”) scraps of fabric to make it…unless those scraps had some sentimental value to you, we’re willing to bet you’d avoid using tired and tattered fabrics.
Many quilters of past eras did use scraps leftover from sewing clothing or other items (just as you might today) and/or feedsacks during the times those were available, but the idea that most quilts of the past were made using threadbare scraps simply isn’t true.
Quilt Historian Judy Anne Breneman makes a fantastic point: “The frugality theory also implies that quiltmaking was a necessary drudgery. Instead we find that most women enjoyed the creativity involved in making a quilt whether with new fabric or scraps.”
Today, we celebrate quilting as an artform, and whether you make traditional-style or art quilts, it’s an opportunity for creativity and something done for enjoyment. Implying that, historically, most quilts were created purely out of necessity, frugality, and from the “scrap bag” removes a really significant connection between quilters of the past and present: the desire to be creative.
A quilt can serve both a functional purpose and a creative one. It can be both practical and artistic. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. And neither are the myth and historical fact. They can coexist, and we can appreciate both separately of one another. If myths represent what our culture values, then, when you think about it, quilting myths actually say some pretty remarkable things about our culture as a whole.
Early American wholecloth quilt made during the
Colonial period. From the collection of Bill Volckening.